In Op-Ed, 10 Ex-Defense Secretaries Say Military Has No Role In Election Dispute

Jan 3, 2021
Originally published on January 4, 2021 9:50 am

Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET

The U.S. presidential election, and the time for questioning its results, are over, all 10 living former secretaries of defense wrote in a forceful op-ed published on Sunday.

"Our elections have occurred. Recounts and audits have been conducted. Appropriate challenges have been addressed by the courts. Governors have certified the results. And the electoral college has voted," the 10 men from both Republican and Democratic administrations wrote.

"The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived," they said.

The bipartisan group of leaders published the letter in The Washington Post as President Trump continues to deny his election loss to President-elect Joe Biden. On Saturday, during a one-hour phone call, Trump even pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes to overturn his defeat.

Former Secretaries of Defense Ashton Carter, Dick Cheney, William Cohen, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta, William Perry and Donald Rumsfeld signed the opinion piece.

Two Pentagon heads who served under Trump — Jim Mattis and Mark Esper — also signed it. Trump removed Esper in November as part of a major shakeup at the Department of Defense.

The op-ed comes as some Republican lawmakers in Congress plan this week to formally object to the certification of the Nov. 3 presidential election results.

Since the vote, Trump and his attorneys have repeatedly asserted false claims of voter fraud and said, without evidence, that his loss to Biden was due to widespread irregularities. But his insistence that the election was stolen has led to some speculation he could somehow use the military to remain in office past Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration.

The 10 signatories made it clear that any effort to involve U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take the country "into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory."

They wrote, "Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic."

Former Defense Secretary Perry, who served under President Bill Clinton, wrote on Twitter that the idea for the statement originated with Cheney, a Republican who served under President George W. Bush as vice president and President George H.W. Bush as secretary of defense.

"Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We did not swear it to an individual or a party," Perry tweeted, reiterating the op-ed's lines.

In an interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Cohen, who also served as secretary of defense under Clinton, told co-host Noel King he is comfortable characterizing Trump's efforts to reverse the election as a coup.

"I am not troubled by the word 'coup,' " Cohen said. "I think it means an extra-judicial, extra-legal action that opposes rule not by the people but by a select few."

Cohen, who represented Maine as a Republican U.S. senator for almost 20 years, said he is concerned Trump is attempting to promote civil unrest as justification to deploy military forces in the streets.

"There are things taking place which pose, I think, a threat to our domestic tranquility and security, and that is the president encouraging some of the more right-wing extremists to march on Washington and to protest," Cohen said. "And the indication is he's urging them to - it's going to be wild."

At the op-ed's conclusion, the former secretaries also appeared to address Biden's claims that his transition team has faced roadblocks put up by the Trump White House in meeting Pentagon leaders ahead of his inauguration.

"Acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and his subordinates — political appointees, officers and civil servants — are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly," they wrote. "They must also refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team."

NPR's Mark Katkov contributed to this report.

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The time for questioning the results has passed - so write 10 former secretaries of defense in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post yesterday. President Trump, though, continues to question the results. Yesterday, audio emerged of a phone call in which he pushes Georgia's secretary of state to overturn that state's election result. William Cohen is one of those who signed the letter. He served as Bill Clinton's secretary of defense, and he was a Republican senator for almost 20 years. Good morning, sir.

WILLIAM COHEN: Good morning.

KING: Why did you feel the need to publish this op-ed?

COHEN: Well, there are things taking place which pose, I think, a threat to our domestic tranquility and security. And that is the president encouraging some of the more right-wing extremists to march on Washington and to protest. And the indication is he's urging them to - it's going to be wild. That poses a threat, I think, in terms of they're not seeking a peaceful demonstration but rather to encourage some sort of conflict with counterprotesters. So it's going to be in the next couple of days, and a few days will be, I think, a real challenge to maintain order and stability.

KING: You and others in this op-ed write efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous territory. Does something in particular have you worried that the military will be asked to intervene, that the president would ask the military to intervene?

COHEN: Well, there are two things that come to my mind - no. 1, when the president called upon the military to escort him through Lafayette Square so he could have a photo-op in front of a church holding a Bible; second thing was the deployment of individuals who were in ninja suits in Seattle who fired rubber bullets into the heads of protesters and then took them, apprehended them, put them in unmarked cars and took them off to jail before releasing them. And then the third thing is the talk about martial law being floated in the White House and then by - publicly by Lieutenant General Flynn. Those things certainly caught my mind in terms of whether the president would try to use the military to go into five states and overturn the election.

KING: There are some smart and very serious people out there who are calling the president's actions a coup attempt. What do you make of the use of the word coup?

COHEN: Well, it seems the president would try to reverse an election that for all evidence that we have was proper and appropriate and legal to then think about overturning, that is tantamount to overturning the electoral system, the democratic system, and imposing law by rule and not the rule of law.

KING: It sounds like you're comfortable with the word coup.

COHEN: I am not troubled by the word coup. I think it means an extra judicial, extra legal action that imposes a rule not by the people but by a select few.

KING: Have you heard the audio of the call that the president made to Georgia's secretary of state?

COHEN: I did and equally appalled about that, but it seems to be consistent what the president has done in the past, including the call to President Zelenskiy of Ukraine, where he tried to invite him to dig up dirt on Biden in exchange for releasing the foreign assistance that was voted by the Congress. That seems entirely consistent with what he's doing here. He is telling the secretary of state of Georgia just come up with 11,000-plus votes and you can recalibrate that and I will come away the winner. As you know, that's the case. And by the way, since you know that this was an illegal vote, you, too, would be complicit if you don't try to overturn it. So he's basically threatening the secretary of state with participating as a co-conspirator in a crime.

KING: And we should note that the secretary of state essentially said, Mr. President, you have your facts wrong.

COHEN: Absolutely. And congratulations to him for standing up against President Trump.

KING: A group of Republican senators say they will object when Congress certifies the Electoral College votes this week. As a former Republican senator yourself, I wonder, what would you like to say to those senators who are obstructing the process?

COHEN: Well, I've said it publicly that I believe that they are committing an act that's designed to appease President Trump. They are currying his favor because they believe his supporters will support them if they run in the future 2022, 2024. And they're looking to be the heir (ph) of President Trump if he decides not to run in 2024.

KING: But what would your message to them be?

COHEN: Abide by the Constitution. You took an oath to support the Constitution. That is not supporting the Constitution. That's supporting a president based on nonfacts that have been made public. To date, we're still waiting for their factual statements as opposed to mere allegations or rumor.

KING: William Cohen served as Bill Clinton's secretary of defense and was a Republican senator for almost 20 years. Sir, thank you for your time.

COHEN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.